Thursday, May 17, 2007

In search of the "Hicks" or is that "Higgs" boson

Doubtless like most people, my first instinct when thinking about particle physics is to reach for The New Yorker. It so happens that there is an article in the latest issue about the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) located in Switzerland. It just so happens that one of my former students, who worked with me last summer at Argonne on an internship, is spending a few weeks there this summer on another internship. Not bad for a girl from Woodridge who hasn't even got to a real university yet.

I am no particle physicist, that much is clear. In fact I live in blissful ignorance about much, if not all, of what has transpired over the last few decades. Question is, how much worse off am I as a result? Shortly after beginning my tenure at COD, I attended a lecture, of sorts, given by a self-proclaimed philosopher allegedly about some issue of science. It was perhaps one of the most disgraceful displays of intellectual fraud and nonsense I have ever witnessed, containing as it did a collection of half-baked, vague, un-connected, cobbled-together notions about matter. The worst bit was that people just sat there taking it in with an almost reverential air. In that moment I knew the difference between a community college and a place of true scholarship. To emblemize his true ignorance of the subject the speaker insisted on referring to the "Hicks" boson in some terribly significant way, when of course he was intending the "Higgs" boson. At least I knew that much, not that I had any real clue as to what the Higgs boson is or is meant to be. I guess it has not yet been found, so it might not be anything at all.

One of the goals of the LHC is to identify the existence of this super particle which may (or may not) hold the key to the universe. It leaves me thinking I am glad to be a simple chemist. For me and my ilk, it is completely satisfactory to consider only three particles - electron, proton and neutron. Almost, we could get away with just electrons if we treat the nucleus as a positive blob. Chemistry is all about electrons and the electromagnetic force, more or less. I suppose if we worry about isotope effects we do need to acknowledge the neutron. We don't need to concern ourselves with what they are made of though. Isn't there a wonderful simplicity about that, a handful of particles and a force (or two)?

An analogy to the particulate nature of matter (when explaining atoms) is the appearance of a sandy beach as a function of magnification. From a distance it is smooth and uniform, but when we approach we see grains of sand are evident. So, in matter, the crystal may appear smooth, but up close we see the atoms. That is the Dalton scale of particulateness. Experiments soon revealed the deficiency of that view by revealing the particulate nature of atoms themselves: the discovery of electrons and nuclei, and later of course protons and neutrons. Now we are forced to accept the particulate nature of some of those subatomic particles and the existence of a whole slew of different bits and bobs. It is all quite bewildering. And I have to bite my tongue to suppress the thought, "so what?"

The original argument of Democritus (if indeed it was him - there may have been others too) in coining the term atom was that there was a point at which apparently smooth matter was indivisible (a-tomos). The nineteenth century appeared to fix that point at the atomic level. The twentieth century and beyond has moved that point to a finer scale. One wonders if it will ever stop moving.

I did find one point of contact between myself the humble chemist and the mighty string theorist. Nima Arkani-Hamed (with a name like that you cannot do chemistry) of Harvard, a mere stripling of thirty-five, consumes, apparently, vast quantities of espresso while working out the consequences of "split supersymmetry." I am sure he must have a Nespresso, with which I could not be without to work out the consequences of sodium reacting with chlorine.

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